Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, BOTHWELL: PART 1, by WILLIAM EDMONSTOUNE AYTOUN



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BOTHWELL: PART 1, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: Cold - cold! The wind howls fierce without
Last Line: That rise to madden me!
Alternate Author Name(s): Bon Gaultier (With Theodore Martin)
Subject(s): Bothwell, Scotland; Courts & Courtiers; Death; Prisons & Prisoners; Royal Court Life; Royalty; Kings; Queens; Dead, The; Convicts


I

COLD -- cold! The wind howls fierce without;
It drives the sleet and snow;
With thundering hurl, the angry sea
Smites on the crags below.
Each wave that leaps against the rock
Makes this old prison reel --
God! cast it down upon my head,
And let me cease to feel!
Cold -- cold! The brands are burning out,
The dying embers wane;
The drops fall plashing from the roof
Like slow and sullen rain.
Cold -- cold! And yet the villain kernes
Who keep me fettered here,
Are feasting in the hall above,
And holding Christmas cheer.
When the wind pauses for its breath,
I hear their idiot bray,
The laugh, the shout, the stamping feet,
The song and roundelay:
They pass the jest, they quaff the cup,
The Yule-log sparkles brave,
They riot o'er my dungeon-vault
As though it were my grave.
Ay, howl again, thou bitter wind,
Roar louder yet, thou sea,
And drown the gusts of brutal mirth
That mock and madden me!
Ho, ho! the Eagle of the North
Has stooped upon the main!
Scream on, O eagle, in thy flight,
Through blast and hurricane --
And, when thou meetest on thy way
The black and plunging bark
Where those who pilot by the stars
Stand quaking in the dark,
Down with thy pinion on the mast,
Scream louder in the air,
And stifle in the wallowing sea
The shrieks of their despair!
Be my avenger on this night,
When all, save I, are free;
Why should I care for mortal man,
When men care nought for me?
Care nought? They loathe me, one and all,
Else why should I be here --
I, starving in a foreign cell,
A Scottish prince and peer?

II

O, that the madness, which at times
Comes surging through my brain,
Would smite me deaf, and dumb, and blind,
No more to wake again --
Would make me, what I am indeed,
A beast within a cage,
Without the sense to feel my bonds,
Without the power to rage --
Would give me visions dark and drear,
Although they were of hell,
Instead of memories of the place
From which I stooped and fell!

III

I was the husband of a Queen,
The partner of a throne;
For one short month the sceptred might
Of Scotland was my own.
The crown that father Fergus wore
Lay ready for my hand,
Yea, but for treason, I had been
The monarch of the land;
The King of Scots, in right of her
Who was my royal bride,
The fairest woman on the earth
That e'er the sun espied.
O Mary -- Mary! Even now,
Seared as I am to shame,
The blood grows thick around my heart
At utterance of thy name!
I see her, as in bygone days,
A widow, yet a child,
Within the fields of sunny France,
When heaven and fortune smiled.
The violets grew beneath her feet,
The lilies budded fair,
All that is beautiful and bright
Was gathered round her there.
O lovelier than the fairest flower
That ever bloomed on green,
Was she, the darling of the land,
That young and spotless Queen!
The sweet, sweet smile upon her lips,
Her eyes so kind and clear,
The magic of her gentle voice,
That even now I hear!
And nobles knelt, and princes bent
Before her as she came;
A Queen by gift of nature she,
More than a Queen in name.
Even I, a rugged Border lord,
Unused to courtly ways,
Whose tongue was never tutored yet
To lisp in polished phrase;
I, who would rather on the heath
Confront a feudal foe,
Than linger in a royal hall
Where lackeys come and go --
I, who had seldom bent the knee
At mass, or yet at prayer,
Bowed down in homage at her feet,
And paid my worship there!

IV

My worship? yes! My fealty? ay! --
Rise, Satan, if thou wilt,
And limn in fire, on yonder wall,
The pictures of my guilt --
Accuser! Tempter! Do thy worst,
In this malignant hour,
When God and man abandon me,
And I am in thy power --
Come up, and show me all the past,
Spare nothing that has been;
Thou wert not present, juggling fiend,
When first I saw my Queen!

V

I worshipped; and as pure a heart
To her, I swear, was mine,
As ever breathed a truthful vow
Before Saint Mary's shrine:
I thought of her, as of a star
Within the heavens above,
That such as I might gaze upon,
But never dare to love.
I swore to her that day my troth,
As belted earl and knight,
That I would still defend her throne,
And aye protect her right.
Well; who dare call me traitor now?
My faith I never sold;
These fingers never felt the touch
Of England's proffered gold.
Free from one damning guilt at least
My soul has ever been;
I did not sell my country's rights,
Nor fawn on England's Queen!
Why stand'st thou ever at my head?
False devil, hence, I say!
And seek for traitors, black as hell,
'Mongst those who preach and pray!
Get thee across the howling seas,
And bend o'er Murray's bed,
For there the falsest villain lies
That ever Scotland bred.
False to his vows, a wedded priest;
Still falser to the Crown;
False to the blood, that in his veins
Made bastardy renown;
False to his sister, whom he swore
To guard and shield from harm;
The head of many a felon plot,
But never once the arm!
What tie so holy that his hand
Hath snapt it not in twain?
What oath so sacred but he broke
For selfish end or gain?
A verier knave ne'er stepped the earth
Since this wide world began;
And yet -- he bandies texts with Knox,
And walks a pious man!

VI

Get thee to crafty Lethington,
That alchemist in wile,
To grim Glencairn. the preacher's pride,
To Cassilis and Argyle --
To Morton, steeped in lust and guilt,
My old confederate he! --
O well for him that 'twixt us twain
There rolls the trackless sea!
O well for him that never more
On Scottish hill or plain,
My foot shall tread, my shadow fall,
My voice be heard again:
For there are words that I could speak
Would make him blench and quail,
Yea, shiver like an aspen tree,
Amidst his men of mail! --
Get thee to them, who sold their Queen
For foreign gold and pay;
Assail them, rack them, mock them, fiend!
Bide with them till the day,
But leave me here alone to-night --
No fear that I will pray!

VII

O many a deed that I have done
Weighs heavy on my soul;
For I have been a sintul man,
And never, since my life began,
Have bowed me to control.
Perchance my temper was too rude,
Perchance my pride too great;
Perchance it was my fantasy,
Perchance it was my fate!
I will not pour my muttered guilt
In any shaveling's ear,
Nor ask for prayer from mortal lips,
Were death and judgment near.
They shall not weigh those deeds of mine
By moral code or rule;
Man deals with man by human laws,
And judges like a fool!

VIII

In Scotland, when my name is heard,
From Orkney's utmost bound,
To where Tweed's silver waters run,
Men shudder at the sound.
They will not even deign to pray
For one so lost and vile --
They, who have raced to see me ride,
They, who have waited by my side
For nothing save a smile!
And yet I am not guiltier now
Than when they sought me there;
Not more deserving of their curse,
Less worthy of their prayer!

IX

What charge -- what crime? Come, trusty peers,
Come all of you, and say
Why I should be a prisoner here,
And you be free to-day!
You dealt with England -- that's assured!
You murdered Riccio too;
And he who planned that felon deed,
And, with his wife in view,
Plunged his weak dagger in the corpse --
That coward wretch I slew!

X

A king? he was no king of mine!
A weak and worthless boy --
A fool in whose insensate hand
The fairest jewel of the land
Lay a neglected toy.
A man, indeed, in outward form,
But not a man in mind,
Less fit by far to rule the realm
Than many a vassal hind.
O had I earlier sought the place
That late -- too late -- was mine;
Had I but seen the woman then,
And deemed her less divine,
When first upon the Scottish shore
She, like a radiant star,
Descended, bringing hope and mirth
From those bright realms afar;
When all men's hearts were blithe and glad
To greet their youthful Queen,
And once again within the land
A happy face was seen --
I might have made my homage more
Than that of subject peer,
And with my oath of loyalty
Have blent a vow more dear.
For I had friends enow to back;
And, with my kith and kin,
Who held the Borders, far and wide,
And hemmed the marches in,
I might have bid defiance bold,
To all who dared advance
To claim the hand of Scotland's Queen,
The widow-child of France!
Had I but sent the cry abroad,
That neither English peer,
Nor Scottish lord from England's court
Should be our master here --
Had I but trusted to myself,
And bravely ta'en my stand,
Then Darnley never would have been
The King within the land.

XI

Too late -- too late! Poor Mary stood
Unfriended and alone,
The tenant of a dreary hall,
A melancholy throne:
No more, as in her grandsire's days,
Surrounded by a ring
Of valiant lords and faithful knights,
Who for fair Scotland and her rights
Would die beside their King.
Set was the star of chivalry
That erst had gleamed so pure
Upon the crests of those who lay
On Flodden's fatal moor.
Gone were the merry times of old,
The masque, and mirth, and glee;
And wearier was the palace then
Than prison needs to be.
Forbidden were the vesper bells, --
They broke the Sabbath calm!
Hushed were the notes of minstrelsy --
They chimed not with the psalm:
'Twas sin to smile, 'twas sin to laugh,
'Twas sin to sport or play,
And heavier than a hermit's fast
Was each dull holiday.
Was but the sound of laughter heard,
Or tinkling of a lute,
Or, worse than all, in royal hall,
The tread of dancing foot --
Then to a drove of gaping clowns
Would Knox with unction tell
The vengeance that in days of old
Had fallen on Jezebel!

XII

She stood alone, without a friend
On whom her arm might lean:
No true and trusty counsellors
Were there to serve their Queen;
But moody men, with sullen looks,
And faces hard and keen.
They who professed the later faith
Were trembling for their hold
Of the broad lands and fertile fields
Owned by the Church of old.
Apostles they of easy walk --
No martyrdom or pain --
What marvel if they loved a creed
That brought such pleasant gain?
What marvel if their greedy hearts
Were wrung with abject fear,
Lest Rome should yet resume her sway,
And strip them of their gear?
How could they serve a Papist Queen
With loyal hearts and true?
How own a rank idolatress,
With Paradise in view?
England was near, and England's Queen
Defied both France and Rome --
What marvel if they went to her,
And broke their faith at home?

XIII

And she, the sister, maiden Queen --
Rare maid and sister she!
True daughter of the Tudor line,
Who claimed her crown by right divine,
And ruled o'er land and sea --
She who might well, without disgrace,
Or any thought of fear,
Have deigned, from her established place,
To succour one so near --
She, whom her slaves call wise in thought,
And generous in deed, --
How did she deal with Scotland's Queen,
How help her in her need?

XIV

By heaven! -- if I dare speak the word, --
I, steeped in guilt and crime,
I, who must bear the heaviest curse
Of this distracted time --
By heaven! I think, had Scotland stood
Unfriended and alone,
Left to herself, without intrigue
From any neighbour throne;
Free to decide, and mould, and fix
The manner of her sway,
No Scottish soul had ever stooped
To cozen or betray!
I say it -- I, the twice betrayed,
Their victim and their tool --
I, whom they made the sacrifice
For their unrighteous rule;
I say it, even for the men
Who drove me here to shame --
Theirs is the lesser, paltrier guilt,
And theirs the meaner blame!

XV

They durst not, had they stood alone,
Inheritors of names
That over Christendom have flown,
As stream the northern flames, --
Whose fathers, in their silent graves,
Sleep peacefully and well,
Scotland's great champions while they lived,
And greater when they fell --
They durst not so have wronged their blood,
And smirched their fair renown.
Have flung their honour to the winds,
And leagued against the crown.
But at the gate the Temptress stood,
Not beautiful nor young;
Nor luring, as a Syren might,
By magic of her tongue;
High and imperious, stately, proud,
Yet artful to beguile,
A woman, without woman's heart,
Or woman's sunny smile:
By nature tyrannous and vain,
By state-craft false and mean,
She hated Mary from her soul,
As woman and as Queen!

XVI

Men hate, because in act or strife
They cross each other's path;
Short is the space for jealousy,
And fierce the hour of wrath:
Their passion, like the autumn flood,
Sweeps o'er the plains below;
But woman's hate runs deeper far,
Though noiseless in its flow.
A fairer face, a higher place,
More worship, more applause,
Will make a woman loathe her friend
Without a deadlier cause.
The darkness struggles with the light,
The gloaming with the day,
Ay, even in the deeps of night
Will shadows force their way:
For ever, when the peerless moon
Is riding clear in heaven,
Some sullen cloud, by envious winds,
Athwart its disc is driven.
Yet vainly does the shadow seek
A borrowed light to steal,
The cloud is darker for the orb
It cannot quite conceal.
And so, though minions bent the knee
To England's haughty Queen,
And swore in verse and fulsome rhyme,
That never, since the birth of time,
Was such an angel seen,
The instinct of her cold proud heart
Despised the sordid lie,
Yet still she smiled, as women smile,
Who will not deign to sigh.

XVII

And cause had she to hate and fear
Past woman's pride alone;
For Boleyn's daughter sate not safe
Nor surely on her throne.
And many a lord of England thought
On Mary's right and claim,
And owned her in their wassail cups
As Queen, though not by name.
But why this paltering with the past?
Why mutter idly here,
As though I were in dull debate
With council or with peer?
Is it the dripping from the roof,
Or plunging of the sea,
That thus infects me with the weight
Of their monotony?
Why should I brood o'er perished things,
And, like a dotard, dream
Of visions seen but not fulfilled
Far up life's whirling stream?
Man cannot quite control his thoughts,
Nor keep them in his power,
Yet these of mine have wandered wide
Within the bypast hour.
What might have been, in phantom mist
Has vanished long ago;
I need not try to trace it out,
What was, and is, I know.
Enough -- no word of love was breathed
In Mary's ear by me,
When most she needed manly aid,
And when her hand was free.
But Darnley came, and woo'd, and won --
They say that death should close
All count of hate and enmity
Between the deadliest foes --
And yet -- I will not forge a lie,
Here on my wretched bed --
I hated Darnley while he lived;
I hate him now, though dead!

XVIII

She wedded Darnley -- and a fool
In every sense was he,
With scarce the wit to be a knave
If born in low degree.
But folly, when it walks abroad
In royal guise and strain,
Will never lack for knavery
To loiter in its train.
Loose comrades of the baser sort
Were always by his side,
To whisper lewdness in his ear,
And pander to his pride.
And men who wore a graver mask,
Whose hearts were all untrue,
Essayed -- it was an easy task --
To make him traitor too!

XIX

The madman! Had he only known
His duty, style, and place,
When lifted up beside the throne,
And raised to such a grace --
Had he -- the winner of the prize,
For whose transcendent charms,
If deeds availed, not idle words,
Through Europe wide, a thousand lords,
Famous and proud, had drawn their swords
And courted death in arms --
Had he been gentle, faithful, true,
Kind, courteous, nobly-bred,
To her who found him fugitive,
Yet took him to her bed --
Why then, in spite of England's Queen,
Of treason hatched at home,
Of foreign league, or civil war,
Or danger yet to come,
He might have kept the foremost place
Without contending claim,
Have won a kingdom for his race
And left an honoured name.

XX

Not as a Prince of high estate
Came Darnley to the Queen:
His pride provoked the nobles' hate,
His folly stirred their spleen.
And fiercely blazed Elizabeth's wrath
Against the luckless pair,
For still the phantom in her path
Had been a Scottish heir.
And well she knew the ancient strain
That rings through Scotland free --
That the French Queen should bear the son
To rule all Britain to the sea,
And from the Bruce's blood should come
As near as in the ninth degree.
She was a tigress, all too fierce
For rashest love's essay;
None durst approach the royal lair
Where mateless long she lay.
And it was more than gall to her
To think that Mary's son
Must sit one day upon her seat --
Must end what she begun.
She might have frowned a cold consent,
Had Mary stooped to take,
As spouse, an English vassal peer,
For her kind sister's sake.
But Darnley stood too near the throne,
And strong his place had been,
If ready, like a valiant knight,
Against the world to hold his right,
And more -- as love and honour bade,
To vindicate the choice she made,
By duty to the Queen.
But neither honour, truth, nor love
Had power his selfish soul to move;
As cold of heart, as weak of brain,
Unused his passion to restrain,
At once the madman claimed to be
In name and power a King!
He, weak as water, frail as sand,
A beggar when on Mary's hand
He placed the marriage ring!
Then, false to her who gave him all,
And lost to sense of shame,
He banded with her deadliest foes
To stain her spotless name!

XXI

There was that Riccio -- sharp and sly;
No friend of mine, I swear,
For in that dark Italian eye
Was craft beyond my mastery,
And in his cold and subtle smile
I read the evidence of guile
Was deep implanted there.
He could not bend me to his will --
No fanatic was I;
Nor would I lend a helping hand
To rivet on my native land
The chains of Italy.
Right little cared I for the creeds
Of either Church, I trow;
I recked not which should win or lose,
And more -- I reck not now.
But lost on me was all his speech,
His policy was vain:
What was to me the Papal cause
In France or yet in Spain?
I never stood, as Atholl did,
A soldier sworn of Rome,
Nor asked for foreign surgery
To stanch the wounds at home.
Yet Riccio may have faithful been,
And to his mistress true,
For those who hated him the worst
Were knaves and traitors too.
I cannot tell -- but this I know,
That till my dying hour
I never shall forget the shriek
That rung from Mary's bower.

XXII

Twas night -- mirk night -- the slect beat on,
The wind, as now, was rude,
And I was lonely in my room
In dreary Holyrood.
I heard a cry, a tramp of men,
A clash of steel below,
And from my window, in the court
I saw the torches glow.
More common were such sounds to me
Than hum of evening hymn;
I caught my sword, and hurried out
Along the passage dim.
But O, the shriek that thrilled me then --
The accents of despair,
The man's imploring agony,
The woman's frantic prayer!
'O, for the love of God and Christ,
Forbear -- I will not fly!
O mistress -- Queen -- protect me yet,
I am not fit to die!'
'Hold! hold your hands! you shall not strike,
Unless you slay me too;
My guard! O help! they kill the Queen!
Help! husband -- nobles -- you --
O Ruthven -- Douglas -- as you trust
For mercy in your need,
For Christ's dear sake, be satisfied --
Do not this monstrous deed!
What! Darnley, thou? let go my arm --
Unhand me, dastard knave!
To me -- to me -- all Scottish hearts --
Help! treason! Come and save!'

XXIII

A door flew wide. I saw them all --
Ruthven in mail complete,
George Douglas, Ker of Fawdonside,
And Riccio at their feet.
With rapiers drawn and pistols bent,
They seized their wretched prey;
They wrenched her garments from his grasp,
They stabbed him where he lay.
I saw George Douglas raise his arm,
I saw his dagger gleam;
And then I heard the dying yell,
And Mary's piteous scream.
I saw her writhe in Darnley's arms
As in a serpent's fold --
The coward! he was pale as death,
But would not loose his hold!
And then the torches waved and shook,
And louder grew the din,
And up the stair, and through the doors
The rest came trooping in.
What could I do? No time was that
To listen or to wait;
Thronged were the rooms with furious men,
And close beset the gate.
Morton and Lindsay kept the court,
With many a deadly foe;
And swords are swift to do their work
When blood begins to flow.
Darkling I traced the passage back
As swiftly as I came,
For in the crowd that tossed beneath
I heard them shout my name.
Enough! -- that night one victim died
Before Queen Mary's face,
And in my secret heart I doomed
Another in his place.
Not that I cared for Riccio's life,
They might have worked their will;
Though base it was for belted knights
So poor a wretch to kill.
But I had seen my Queen profaned,
Outraged before my face,
By him, the dastard, heartless boy,
The land's and our disgrace.
'Twas he devised the felon plot --
'Twas he that planned the crime --
He led the murderers to her room --
And -- God -- at what a time!

XXIV

They call me savage, brutal, base,
And more -- because I wed
A trembling, sickly, shrewish dame,
And put her from my bed.
Heaven wot, the match was ill ordained;
Her heart was given elsewhere,
And for a second courtship, I
Had neither time nor care.
It may be that she pined alone;
It may be in my hall
She met with ruder company
Than pleased her taste withal:
I may have wronged her by neglect,
I may have galled her pride;
But never brooked she scathe or scorn
While she was Bothwell's bride.

XXV

But he, whom Mary's love had raised
To such a high degree,
The lord and husband of her heart,
The father soon to be,
The man who, in the hour of pain,
Should still have kept her side --
How paid he back the matchless debt,
How did he tend his bride?
Why, had he never left her room,
But, like the grooms of yore,
To lay him on the rushes down
His lady's nest before,
To guard her all the livelong night,
And slumber scarce till dawn,
When her dear voice, so low and sweet,
Like breathings of a fawn,
Told that the time of rest was o'er,
And then a simple hymn
Arose, as if an angel led
The choir of seraphim --
Would such a service have been more
Than he was bound to give?
Nay, if he dared to make it less,
Deserved the boy to live?

XXVI

I was a witness on that night
Of all his shame and guilt;
I saw his outrage on the Queen,
I saw the blood he spilt;
And, ere the day had dawned, I swore,
Whilst spurring through the sand,
I would avenge that treachery,
And slay him with my hand --
Or, in the preachers' holier phrase,
Would purge him from the land!

XXVII

Ah me! and this is Christmas eve;
And here alone I lie,
With nothing save my own wild thoughts
For bitter company!
My own wild thoughts, that will not pass,
Howe'er I bid them go --
My torture, yet the only friends
That visit me below.
Full many a hearth is decked this night
To hail the blessed morn,
On which, in ages long ago,
The Saviour child was born --
The churches all are wreathed with green,
The altars set with flowers,
And happy lowly hearts wait on
And count the passing hours;
Until the midnight chimes proclaim
The hallowed season come,
When Heaven's broad gates are opened wide,
And Hell's loud roar is dumb,
Then myriad voices in acclaim
The song of homage yield,
That once from angels' lips was heard
By shepherds in the field.
Stilled for a time are angry thoughts,
The hearts of men are mild;
The father with a holier thrill
Bends o'er his slumbering child;
New is the kiss the husband gives
Unto his wedded wife,
For earthly love, when blest by Heaven,
Ends not with earthly life;
And, fountain-like, o'er all the world,
Where Christ's dear name is known,
Arise the sounds of prayer and praise
Toward the eternal throne.
But I, a slave in bondage here,
Racked -- torn by mad despair --
How can I falter forth the words
Of praise or yet of prayer?
Men drove me from them, as a wolf
From mountain-folds is driven,
And what I could not win on earth
How dare I seek from Heaven?
Ay, howl again, thou winter wind --
Roar louder yet, thou sea!
For nothing else can stun the thoughts
That rise to madden me!





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